Zhou Enlai, Saint or Sinner?

This fascinating book review by the WaPo’s John Pomfret looks at the banned-in-China biography, Zhou Enlai’s Later Years, by Gao Wenqian, a former CCP researcher for more than a decade prior to emigrating to the US.

He depicts Zhou as a tragic backroom schemer, a puppet of his master Mao, and a man who was so imbued with a Confucian sense of duty that he did almost everything Mao asked him — including signing the arrest orders for his own brother and a goddaughter.

The book challenges the view that Zhou tried his best to save hundreds of purged officials during the Cultural Revolution, portraying him instead as an eager participant in the ultra-leftist campaign during which hundreds of thousands of people were dispatched to the Chinese gulag.

“Party documents show that Zhou only protected people after first checking with Mao, his wife Jiang Qing, Mao’s no. 2 Lin Biao and others,” Gao wrote. “If Zhou sensed any opposition to protecting someone, he would drop his protection.”

Even though Zhou died 27 years ago, criticism of him is taboo in China because, officially, he never made a mistake. “In a society troubled with corruption and facing a moral vacuum, Zhou is the last good Communist,” said Gao. “This book takes him off his pedestal. I criticized what should never be criticized.”

I have to admit, for years even I got sucked into the myth of Zhou as the pearl among the swine, and I’m sad to see the destruction of the romanticized image of the kind-hearted friend of the people who subtly tried to influence Mao to be a bit less awful.

But reading about China’s history over the past year, I knew this was sugar coating; Zhou was an enthusiastic supporter of the Great Leap Forward, and while he may have saved the Forbidden City from destruction during the Cultural Revolution (another myth?), he was not divorced from all that was going on around him.

According to Pomfret, who obviously gives the book a good deal of credence, Gao shatters one myth after another:

Gao also challenges a long-held belief that it was Zhou who brought Deng back into the Chinese leadership in 1973. Deng later rose to become China’s paramount leader in the late 1970s, and held onto his position until his death in 1997. Deng’s official biographers have used what they have called his special relationship with Zhou as a way to bolster his prestige.

Gao wrote that Mao actually brought Deng back from official oblivion as part of a plot to ensure that Zhou did not become too powerful. Gao cites as proof Deng’s participation in several sessions organized by Mao to criticize Zhou.

“I wanted to write a book about a personality that had been distorted by the Communist system,” Gao said. “Zhou was such a man.”

I remember watching film clips of all the weeping Chinese people as Zhou Enlai’s funeral cortege passed by. It was as though a part of them had died with Zhou. They believed so deeply in him, that he was saintly, that he loved them and fought for them. Was it just one more of history’s cruel jokes? How sad.

Unfortunately, the book is currently available only in Chinese. I’ll be the first buyer when the English version is out.

The Discussion: 9 Comments

if the book is banned in china, where is it published?

December 10, 2003 @ 1:49 am | Comment

I would think Hong Kong and Taiwan. You can always email Pomfret for the details.

December 10, 2003 @ 7:32 am | Comment

Hmmm … I may have to consider changing the character “en” in my name … but no … it still makes a useful way of telling people it’s “Zhou En Lai de ‘en'”.

December 10, 2003 @ 1:37 pm | Comment

The book can be found in bookstores in chinatowns and/or any major chinese shopping malls in North America.

I remember Prince Roy had once said that the book is not as good as it sounds.

December 10, 2003 @ 4:31 pm | Comment

Thanks Andrea — that is a good enough reason for me to run to buy the book.

December 10, 2003 @ 4:38 pm | Comment

Deification or Humanization?

Chinese always intend to deify national leaders. In ancient China, we looked at the kings or emperors as gods or saints to prostrate before. After the PRC was founded, we still sang for our great leader Mao and wish him can live for 10 thousands years. Such deification finally let Mao feel so inflated and made big mistakes in his last years.

Premier Zhou is another kind of deification, because he was such a kind, selfless, and busy premier who was full of wisdom. He is one of my idols till now, but I appreciate him more on his style and wisdom of diplomacy. From my primary education on, this people’s good premier constantly appeared in our textbook as if he was still living near us. Zhou Enlai is perfect however you look from every aspect: he was so sinless, he even had no descendants and impossible to leave anything to them; he worked extremely hard for our state; he was so beloved by the whole country. Such a person, can you find any flecks from him? The “sinless officer complex” which formed in 3 thousand years of feudal society would let modern Chinese people love this great premier so much. But, do you think Zhou looks like a natural man, I think he looks more like a saint, even he was so close to his people. The same saints will include Lei Feng and Jiao Yulu, although they were not in such a high position as Zhou.

Actually, I had awared some negative reports about my idol from some Taiwan and Western media. If the reports are really facts, I will not be mad at them, at least, we should hold an objective attitude to criticize a person. Even the reports are truth, I think it will make my idol look like a real man who I can close to, and I do not like a man who I can only look up to. Why should we be so hard on our national leaders? Yes, because he was our premier and on behalf of our country, but he was also a human being, he could make mistakes, he would has his private life, so what? We should accept these things as well as accept his excellence, no one in the world is absolutely perfect! I know it was so difficult for Zhou to be in stead of himself at Chinese political stage. As one of Chinese sayings said, “It is impossible for two king tigers to exist in a mountain at the same time.” I think this saying probably suits the whole world. Especially in China, power-centralization tradition is so outstanding, even Zhou could not be out of its control and had to be
defined as assistant position sometimes.

Anyway, I hope to return nature, to see real human. Though the media will always be partial, let us accept people’s excellences and shortcomings whether s/he is a great leader or a common person.

December 10, 2003 @ 7:13 pm | Comment


Here is that review by Prince Roy.

December 12, 2003 @ 11:50 pm | Comment

If Prince Roy says not to buy it, that’s good enough for me! He knows everything.

December 13, 2003 @ 1:13 am | Comment

could you tell me how much this book is and which book store I could buy it?
I also want to buy the books about > and >

December 22, 2003 @ 6:06 pm | Comment

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.